New scheme offers hope in the uncertain world of postdoctoral despair

June 2, 2011

Uncertainty is the status quo for most early career researchers, for whom job security is generally a forlorn hope. But that will change for 50 postdoctoral researchers being sought by the University of Birmingham, which has launched a global search to recruit the "next generation of research leaders".

Birmingham, which launched the Fellowship scheme on 2 June, is looking for candidates across all fields, although it identified two dozen priority areas, ranging from 20th-century music to high-energy physics. Importantly, it said that the five-year Fellowships will lead to permanent academic posts, something rarely guaranteed by such schemes.

Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at Birmingham, acknowledged the uncertainty that many postdoctoral researchers face: "It is very, very difficult. The instability of moving from one postdoc to another isn't a fun place to be."

He said the Birmingham scheme was modelled on Research Councils UK's Academic Fellowships, known as the Roberts Fellowships, which also came with a commitment of a permanent position.

"We expect to appoint outstanding people, and it would only be in the most extreme circumstances that there wouldn't be a job at the end of it," Professor Tickell said. "That's rare, and we expect to get really top people as a consequence. The two other pretty good Fellowship schemes are at Warwick and Imperial, and they don't (guarantee a job at the end), so we believe that gives us an edge."

Professor Tickell added that 50 Fellowships was a "deliberately ambitious" number.

"I'm not sure that any other UK university has done something like this. I don't think at the moment that any other university has the capacity to do so, because of the (financial) environment we all face."

Birmingham said it was looking for candidates who would expect to be able to enter three or four publications ranked at 3* (international quality) or 4* (world-leading) to the research excellence framework in 2014.

The university also said it would fast-track applicants who came with independent Fellowships from research councils, the Royal Society and other funding bodies.

However, Professor Tickell said that if a large number of successful applicants came with external funding, Birmingham - which intends to invest between £3.5 and £5 million in the scheme - would consider increasing the number of Fellowships available.

"If we have a significant number of people coming with research council Fellowships, we would look very hard at whether 50 was an adequate number," he said.

Asked whether he expected the majority of the Fellows to come from the UK, he said: "There are clearly going to be visa problems if we have a lot of non-Europeans, but we just want the best people we can get. The evidence is that UK science is outstanding, and I would be surprised if there weren't a lot of very highly qualified people from the UK."

The uncertainty that blights the lives of many early career researchers is highlighted in the main feature in this issue of Times Higher Education.

Dora Biro, who holds a Royal Society University Fellowship and is based at the University of Oxford's department of zoology, said the competition among young researchers for a full-time position was "intense and ruthless".

The call for applications for the Birmingham scheme will remain open until all the vacancies have been filled, with the deadline for the first round set at 5 September.

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